April 15, 2024 

The WNBA’s injury problem

2023 saw an increase in injuries across the league

By Lucas Seehafer and Abby Gordon

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It happened, as it often tends to happen, in a nondescript fashion. Brionna Jones, the Connecticut Sun’s All-Star-caliber center, had just set a slip screen above the 3-point line and began her cut to the basket. She passed the ball to teammate DeWanna Bonner and stopped after a single step. As Bonner rose to shoot, Jones prepared to crash the boards, a move she had done countless times throughout her career. Instead of grabbing the rebound, she collapsed to the floor in a heap, grasping her ankle and covering her mouth. Her Achilles was torn. Her season was over.

Injuries are an unfortunate aspect of sports. For all its magnificence, the human body simply isn’t built to withstand repeated bouts of high-intensity athleticism. Human muscles attach near the joints they are designated to move to maximize range of motion and mobility. As a result, they must produce and absorb great force to complete athletic movements. The upside: Humans can perform unique feats of power and ballistic athleticism. The downside: injuries.

The WNBA is no exception, and the 2023 season was ripe with positive storylines demonstrating rising scoring, attendance, viewership and media coverage across the league. The Las Vegas Aces repeated as champions, the first franchise to do so in two decades. There was also an increase in injuries. The Next reported several of these injuries and the impact on team success after losing star players. (In addition to Jones’ ruptured Achilles tendon, Lexie Brown missed 28 games due to non-COVID illness, Shey Peddy sustained a concussion and the Washington Mystics were plagued by multiple injuries.)

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2023 WNBA injuries at a glance

According to The Next’s injury database, which collected injury occurrence data daily last summer, there were 176 injuries and illnesses league-wide resulting in 789 games missed and 44.0 estimated win shares lost. Win shares are a statistic used to attribute team wins to the contributions of individual players. Further analysis of the data revealed some interesting trends:

A bar chart showing total injuries and total games missed per body part
  • Most injuries were minor, with 129 (73%) resulting in the athlete missing three games or fewer.
  • The three most-injured body parts corresponded with the most games lost with 41 ankle injuries (141 games), 23 knee injuries (238), and 20 foot injuries (166 games).
  • There were a surprising number of illnesses (23), most of which were not COVID-related.
  • The Washington Mystics suffered the most injuries (28) and estimated win shares lost (9.0), while the Los Angeles Sparks missed the most games (168); the Dallas Wings missed the most games per injury (7.8).
  • The Atlanta Dream, Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty tied for the fewest injuries with eight. This number could be different if injuries that did not result in missed games were not reported. The Seattle Storm missed the fewest games (19). The Indiana Fever lost the fewest estimated win shares (0.2).
  • Backcourt athletes suffered the most injuries (109) and games lost (513), though injuries to the frontcourt resulted in more estimated win shares lost (23.5 vs 20.5).
  • Injuries reached a nadir in July (1.3 injuries per day) and peaked in both May and September (2.0).

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Heading into 2024

Unfortunately, it is unclear how these trends compare to previous WNBA seasons. The league does not sufficiently document injuries, and, according to sources, does not generally provide the information they do possess to independent, academic researchers despite the league’s collective bargaining agreement explicitly stating it would be made available

A study published in 2020 reported that 195 total injuries resulting in 1,352 total missed games occurred in the WNBA between 2015 and 2019. However, this data was collected using publicly available injury reports after the completion of the seasons and minor injuries that did not result in games missed and/or appear on an injury report were omitted. As such, the data is likely incomplete and does not truly paint a full picture of injury occurrence and severity in the WNBA.

Injury occurrence in the WNBA remains significantly understudied. This limits available resources for teams to use when rehabilitating athletes back to the court and impacts efforts to prevent injury in the future. Franchises have begun to attempt to improve the rehabilitation process and mitigate injury risk by implementing various sports performance technologies. According to sources, all 12 teams have access to force plates, which can discern factors such as muscle strength imbalances and rate of force development. However, technologies such as marker-less motion capture and inertial measurement units remain under-used, especially when compared to the NBA. (Sources indicated that the Phoenix Mercury, Liberty, Aces and Mystics are the most advanced as it pertains to the implementation and use of sports performance technology.)

As the league prepares to undergo expansion, there is a great opportunity to shed light on the medical side of the WNBA. Follow along with The Next’s WNBA Injury Tracker for updates on injured players all season long. Hopefully, the list will be much shorter than last year’s.

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Written by Lucas Seehafer

Lucas Seehafer is a general reporter for The Next. He is also a physical therapist and professor at the undergraduate level. His work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Forbes, FanSided, and various other websites.

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